In less than a week President Ramaphosa seems have to cracked the proverbial whip in the ANC. After his admission during his first appearance before the Zondo Commission that the Party ‘had dropped the ball’ in taking a tougher stance against rooting out corruption and graft while failing the electorate in their lack of oversight, Ramaphosa’s reassurances turned into a decisive moment for the organization with the suspension of its Secretary-General Ace Magashule.
It had to be the third colossal event for Ramphosa after winning the Presidency of the Party and then getting former President Jacob Zuma to step down as head of state in 2018. But like we know a day in politics is really long. Now the beleaguered and suspended Ace Magashule has, whether strategically or out of desperation, struck back with his own letter suspending President Ramaphosa.
So what do we make of all this.
There are two issues that are seminal here in terms of the interplay between Ramaphosa availing himself to the Zondo Commission and his ‘New Dawn’ approach to cleaning up the scourge of the corruption in the state and depravity that gripped the Party:
Was it the plan all along to use the appearance before the Zondo Commission as a way to set into motion the instrumentalization of the ‘step aside’ rule?
Or could it be that the Zondo Commission became the theatre of play where Ramaphosa humbled the ANC by noting to the Commission that it was a ‘cathartic moment’ for the Party which it could no longer shy away from addressing its existential crisis.
Nothing short of a messy Shakespearian tragedy underpinned by a comedy of errors, depending who you ask, the events that have unfolded these last few days opens up a series of coincidences that need to be interrogated.
Coincidence 1: Timing
Timing should never be considered as a relative concept for any outcome. Timing is the quintessential factor in any offensive strategy, especially where the stakes are high. And in the case of the ANC the playbook on timing is precisely that. Though not always with careful meticulousness.
With Ramaphosa’s first appearance before the Zondo Commission so close to the expiry of the 30 day window period for implicated cadres in the Party to abide by the National Executive Committee’s decision around the step aside rule, it is probably no accident that the grace period had ended on the same day as Ramaphosa was wrapping up his submission to the Commission.
The timing was beautifully orchestrated with the Commission becoming the stage to set into action of what was to become the second most decisive point in history for the ANC’s post-1994 rule following the recall of Thabo Mbeki in 2008.
It was at this juncture that Ramaphosa probably astutely knew that with country and the world watching, it was make or break time. While his performance may have been interpreted as lackluster at times, it is very likely that what we witnessed at the State Commission was as he himself revealed to his biographer Anthony Butler ‘I am an enigma, you know’. Did we catch a glimpse of that Ramaphosa who as one analyst commented: ‘He can negotiate you into submission.
It was definitely timing that unveiled what many have noted of a charming but impenetrable President that bides his time for the long haul waiting for the right occasion or structural conditions to pounce.
Coincidence 2: Optics
Optics is paramount with any offensive strategy. As much as Deputy Justice Zondo and the evidence leaders probed the indiscretions of the Party in state capture and to what extent the President and his inner circle were privy to such infractions, Ramaphosa seemed to always bring it back from the tipping point. Never allowing the Commission to get him to stray outside of the Party lines. At times Ramaphosa took on the role of accepting the Party’s burden of sins on his shoulders of responsibility. But again the optics had to be carefully crafted. The Zondo Commission was the platform to show repentance and affirm that the Party needs to undergo a path of renewal.
Again critics may have expected that President will unveil all the Party’s demons and more. Yet Ramaphosa’s demeanour, though a bit terse in certain instances like when it came to the CR17 funding campaign, was probably aware that in the greater scheme of things, he had managed to leverage the optics of ‘not defending the indefensible’ or ‘excusing the inexcusable’.
While the jury of public opinion will probably remain uncertain if they truly believe Ramaphosa submission to the Commission and trust how much he knew, he, indeed threw down the gauntlet to his detractors and his nemesis, Ace Magashule and the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction, that he was bold enough to voluntary stand before the Zondo Commission and recognise the ills in the Party. More so that he was willing to do so not as an implicated individual but as a sitting President. A point referenced in his opening and closing statements. And so the dye was cast for those who had obstinately defied the Party in gesture that said: your move.
Coincidence 3: Reputational Risk
Undoubtedly Ramaphosa and his erstwhile advisors were aware of the reputation risk that they were taking by appearing before the Commission. The question, then, was whether this was a calculated risk. Or was it necessary one to at least salvage some dignity of a Party whose brand has been increasingly sullied.
Given that hindsight is 20:20, it is very likely that it was a mix of both an intended and indispensable risk to demonstrate to the opponents that it cannot get any worse than this and that something’s gotta give. The latter could be implicitly detected in Ramaphosa’s closing statement where the following except should have been the warning label that something big was going to emerge in the coming days:
‘State capture…deeply damaged the effectiveness of the African Nation Congress [ANC]…it did affect the Party…as we had recognized at the 54thConference…state capture had a profound impact on the coherence and unity on the ANC and its ability to carry out its mandate [and] mission to work for the people of South Africa. As part of its efforts to make, what I would call, a decisive break with the era of state capture, the ANC itself, has embarked, as I have sought to explain, on a journey of renewal [and] rejuvenation, and I believe that the work of this Commission, as much as its purpose is to serve the Nation, will in the end … also assist the ANC along the path of renewal. Although it is at times very uncomfortable and difficult for the ANC, we welcome this scrutiny as a necessary step in tackling corruption in the State and across society.
By implication the above statement was probably the writing on the wall that could be interpreted as Ramaphosa conveying to all and sundry, that the ‘rejuvenation’ project was imminent. Perhaps it was the Zondo Commission itself that acted as the catalyst for Ramaphosa and his loyalists to get the plan rolling of the ‘decisive break’ to implement the step aside rule by following the protocols and processes that has always been the guiding principles of the Party.
If anything it was a systematic gamble that paid off. And even if it has not immediately revived the brand of the Party, which still remains weak despite events of the last few days, it nevertheless has demonstrated that President Ramaphosa and his camp have tipped the scales and face of the Party in their favour. Retaining the brand of the organisaton was bigger stake that Magushule and his like had completely disregarded. So touché to Ramphosa and the team for nuancing the Zondo Commission as part of their reputational revival of the Party.
Conclusion: So what now?
Ace Magushule was a big scalp in the context of what has been unfolding in the Party around the factional battles after the 2017 Nasrec Elective Conference . While not the actual scalp most South Africans were hoping to see bagged, it does point to whether this ‘decisive break’ will gain in traction and be sustained.
Now that Ramaphosa has unleashed the first salvo in the fight against Magashule, and, in turn, the aggrieved and suspended Secretary General, has hit back defying the NEC and NWC and issuing his ‘own’ suspension letter towards the President, all eyes will be on the forthcoming NEC meeting this weekend.
What will be Mr Magashule’s future in the Party?
The safe bet will be that he is not going anywhere for the foreseeable future and he is willing to go right down to the wire, hoping that somewhere in the madness his detractors will befall the same fate as him, facing similar breaches of the step aside rule. While it may seem that by his own hand Mr Magashule is daring the Party to expel him, it may not be in the suspended interests as the spoils that he and everyone are fighting over is actually within the Party and its close proximity to state power and resources. But, then, stranger things have happened, and it maybe that the Party Executives will want to send a signal to others in the Party that such obstinance will not be tolerated.
For now the court of public opinion could be somewhat sympathetic to the Ramaphosa camp, actually forgetting that his next appearance at the Zondo Commission will be in his capacity as State President. As it stands Ramaphosa has managed to utilize the Zondo Commission in a significant way to actually operationalize his ‘New Dawn’.
But like everything in politics, the onus is on Ramaphosa to maintain the momentum in cleaning house and even possibly extending it to the State, otherwise we as the nation will easily forget what has just happened and will become unforgiving once again as Ramaphosa prepares for Part 2 at the State Capture Inquiry.
Sanusha Naidu is a Senior Research Associate based at the Institute for Global Dialogue. The views expressed here are personal.